Thankful for being a white male

November 24, 1993|By Robin J. Holt

THANKSGIVING once again, and I've just emerged from an interrogation by an old friend. It was one of those ritual pre-holiday questions: Are you ready for (1) Thanksgiving, (2) Christmas, (3) Guy Fawkes Day? On this occasion, my friend threw me a curve. He asked, "What are you thankful for?"

I've been pondering this question ever since, and I've arrived at the conclusion that, yes, I am thankful, and I am most thankful that I was born white, male and American.

No doubt some readers already have branded me racist, sexist and chauvinist. But let me explain.

As politically incorrect as the white male may be today, he continues to enjoy a decided advantage in our society. The civil rights and women's movements notwithstanding, to be born white and male confers an instance leverage in America.

Consider: A white child born in 1990 has a life expectancy of 73 years; a black child, born the same year, can expect to live 66 years. Betty Friedan, the grandmother of the women's movement, now has gray hair and still can expect to earn 60 to 70 cents for every dollar I make in a comparable job.

Most Americans, when they stop to think rationally, admit, in their hearts, that blacks, Hispanics and women get the short end of the stick on most of the material benefits in our culture.

The infant mortality rate (a major health index) for black RTC Americans is more than twice that of whites. According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, the median in come for a white, single, male householder was $20,900 in 1990. The same householder with black skin made $13,126, slightly more than a single woman, $13,094, and several rungs above a black single woman, $7,674.

Another significant measure of the quality of life is longevity. Only a handful of nations boast of a population expected to live longer than ours: Canada, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, a few others, all of them in Europe. The vast majority of human beings on this planet, living in Asia, Africa and South America, have a life expectancy in the 50s.

The United States remains the most affluent nation in the world, by virtually any yardstick you choose. Our Gross Domestic Product is nearly $4 trillion, a full $2.6 trillion higher than our nearest competitor, Japan. This wealth is reflected in per capital incomes: $16,662 in the U.S. versus $11,025 in Japan.

Economics aside, in terms of personal liberty, ours is the most free society in the history of the world. As I have occasionally reminded my history students, no law requires us to carry any identification in order to walk down the street. Certain privileges, such as driving, require ID, but otherwise the police cannot simply stop you and ask, "Where are your papers?"

The giving of thanks is inseparable from the idea of gratitude for an undeserved gift. Some things, tangible or intangible, are earned by industry or cunning. But some are unrequested, unearned, and we are grateful precisely because we do not feel wholly entitled to them. They are given not so much for what we do as for what we are -- and we're all a little insecure when it comes to that subject. They are the undeserved rewards for our essential natures, which are determined as much by our genes and early nurturing as by any of the adult choices we've made. In other words, we are what we are.

Consequently, I am at a loss to understand those who proclaim their pride in belonging to the white race (or the black, for that matter). What they speak of as an achievement is only an accident of birth.

In the same vein, while I may feel a certain admiration for the ideals on which my country was established, would I not feel equally patriotic were I born French or British or Mexican? But for a chromosome, I'd have been a woman. My gender is the highest elevation of pure chance.

So it is on this Thanksgiving that I am grateful for what I have not earned: my good fortune, my instant advantage, if you will, that is a gift of chance or fate or God. It is a gift which I cannot possibly reciprocate. My partial payment is to attempt, in my small corner of creation, to extend my hand to those who weren't born white, male and American.

Robin J. Holt lives and teaches in Baltimore.

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